A YOUNG motorist swigged vodka in a hatchback containing five passengers, including two young girls, a court heard.

Mark Stephenson almost collided with a police patrol car shortly before bringing the Vauxhall Corsa to a halt and fleeing on foot with the other occupants.

Durham Crown Court heard that it initially came to police attention after pulling away from a petrol station in Seaham with £45-worth of unpaid fuel, on September 21 last year.

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Martin Towers, prosecuting, said among the five passengers were girls aged 12 and 13, while both of the two other male occupants also drove during the journey.

By the time police caught up with the Corsa, in Easington Lane, Stephenson was at the wheel.

Mr Towers said it appeared to be heading towards the police car as it approached from the opposite direction, forcing the officer driving to swerve to avoid a crash, in Queen Elizabeth Drive.

“It was only by inches that a collision was avoided and the Corsa stopped shortly afterwards.

“All occupants decamped, but Stephenson was soon found hiding beside a wall.

“He smelled strongly of drink, and a later breath test found he was more than twice the legal limit for driving.”

Nicholas Lane, mitigating, said the bad driving was over a short distance and the speed was not excessive.

But he told the court his client suffered from mental health problems and was recently admitted to a psychiatric hospital, having previously self-harmed.

Mr Lane said: “Drink is at the root of his problems, but he tells me he has abstained since this incident.

“He’s also in work, and wants to continue to work with the health services to improve his mental health.”

Stephenson, 24, of Warnbrook Avenue, Murton, admitted dangerous driving and driving with excess alcohol.

But, the prosecution chose not to pursue a further charge of making off without payment, which was denied by Stephenson.

Judge Robert Adams imposed a 12-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, with an 18-month supervision order.

He told Stephenson: “You richly deserve custody, but your mental health is of concern to the court.

“If it were not for that, and you being in full-time work, you would have gone straight to prison."

Stephenson was also banned from driving for three years and must take an extended test if he is to drive legally thereafter.